For all the difficult twists and magnificent turns in the journey of Efrem Gidey – from war-torn Eritrea to the medal podium at the European Cross Country – there have been some light-hearted interventions too, writes Ian O’Riordan.
Where to begin? His coach, Joe Cooper, knows about this journey better than anyone, the Clonliffe Harriers club captain taking Gidey under his wing not long after he first arrived in Ireland, in March 2017, via a series of refugee camps including several extended months in the northern French port city of Calais.
Gidey’s potential talent for distance running was first identified while living at temporary accommodation in Mulhuddart and attending at Le Chéile Secondary School in Tyrellstown, west Dublin. The assumption was Clonliffe could best nurture it. In truth, Gidey had no background in athletics whatsoever, cycling, in fact, being the most popular endurance pursuit in his native Eritrea.
“When he first came down to us, Efrem was looking around at the price of bikes, showing a bit of interest in cycling,” Cooper recalls with a smile. “And I was trying to keep him interested in the running. So, I kept saying ‘those bikes are far too dear, far too expensive’.
“Now, we did buy him a bike a bit later, just so he could get around to the shops and things like that. Only, he fell off one day, hurt his hip, and wasn’t able to train properly for a while. I took him to the Mater hospital, nothing broken.
“It still wasn’t right, but there’s a physio we know, Ger Madden, well known in the cycling world, so we brought Efrem out to Sutton to see him. Ger took one look at him and said there wouldn’t be a mountain in Ireland big enough for him. In other words, he reckoned Efrem would have made a great cyclist, and especially on the hills, just because of his legs and hips, that he had the cycling physique.”
Going the distance
One sport’s loss is another sport’s gain, perhaps; either way, Gidey’s talent for distance running unquestionably shone at the European Cross Country in Lisbon last December. In his first international appearance for his now adopted country, he won bronze in the U20 race and, with that, set the pace and mood for a day of unprecedented Irish medal success.
There’s no denying either this was a super-competitive race, won by four-time defending champion, Jakob Ingebrigtsen from Norway. Gidey was one of the few athletes able to test the reigning European senior 1,500m-5,000m champion, and was only passed for silver by Turkey’s Ayetullah Aslanhan towards the end of the last lap.
The delight was etched on Gidey’s face as he crossed the line, in part because he never expected it. “No, I was thinking top 10. Third! That was amazing,” Gidey himself recalls. “The European championships are so big. And to wear the Irish vest, makes me so happy, and so proud for Ireland.
“The first half of that race for me was so fast, I was so tired, but in the second half I felt strong, for the last lap. And so happy for my coach Joe Cooper.”
Cooper picks up the story, also admitting the medal was unexpected, in part because Gidey was only assured of his starting position on the Friday, two days before the race: though he has Irish residency, he’s still awaiting an Irish passport, and only made it to Lisbon after Athletics Ireland secured a Schengen Visa, which allowed him to travel and compete. (The U20 team also came agonisingly close to bronze, missing out on count back after finishing on equal points with hosts Portugal). Out of the previous 25 European championships, Gareth Turnbull is the only other Irish medal winner in the U20 race, also collecting bronze back in 1998.
It also marked Gidey’s last race in the U20 grade, his next big target being the U23 at the European Cross Country in Dublin in December 2020. Coach and athlete have set themselves other goals in the meantime, Gidey getting his first taste of senior international competition at the Internacional de Itálica cross country near Seville in January, where he finished 14th.
“I said to Efrem before the race, if he finishes in the top 20, he’d be doing very well,” says Cooper. “It was his first time coming up against some of the big guns. And I expect to see further improvement in the year ahead.
“Nike recently sent him a kit drop, no strings attached, which just shows that they see the potential in him as well. I expect him to break 14 minutes this year, for 5,000m. But it’s important not to drive him too hard as well. He was doing no more than 50 miles a week last year. This year, we will gently increase that to 60, 70, still based around a session on Tuesday, a Thursday run followed by some tempo work, another session on the Saturday and then a long run on the Sunday morning.
“Plenty of young runners come from Eritrea, Ethiopia or Kenya, push themselves too much and are finished after a few years. If he looks after himself, trains properly, he can run up to age 29 or 30, and make a reasonably good living at it. He has to be patient. It’s always difficult to tell with young talent. Some progress quicker than others and some don’t progress at all. He’s also a very religious young lad, very rarely misses training. He’s a dream to coach, honestly.”
Gidey has progressed in other ways too. He turns 20 in September, and now lives with Cooper’s son, Ian, who has taken him in for minimal rent. He’s currently doing a post-leaving cert course in health and nutrition, while considering his longer-term options; a number of American colleges have expressed an interest since his bronze medal run in Lisbon, and there may also be an opening at Dublin City University.
Gidey’s case is not one of switching nationality, but finding one, and often in the face of all those difficult twists. “All I heard him say one time was he doesn’t know his mother,” says Cooper. “That gives you some idea. And just from very general talk, around coaching and things like that, I asked him once ‘what was it like in Calais?’, and he just said, ‘very bad’. I think we might say it differently, but that’s about all he will say.” For Gidey, it has also come with a sense of faith and fate.
“God gave me this talent,” says Gidey. “God found me Clonliffe.”